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Sunni chiefs critical of Qaeda attacked

Iraqi local leaders standing against group face risks

A US soldier stood guard amid debris in Baghdad's central Karrada district yesterday. A car bomb attack more than two weeks ago killed 25 people there and left more than 100 families homeless. A US soldier stood guard amid debris in Baghdad's central Karrada district yesterday. A car bomb attack more than two weeks ago killed 25 people there and left more than 100 families homeless. (Ross Colvin/Reuters)

BAGHDAD -- Two Sunni leaders who took public stances against Al Qaeda in Iraq were attacked yesterday, a sign that the terror network may be stepping up retaliation against local chiefs who oppose it.

Meanwhile, a powerful roadside bomb killed the governor and police chief of a southern province that has been torn by fierce fighting between Shi'ite factions. The country's prime minister urged residents to show restraint and not launch reprisals.

The flurry of attacks hinted at the complex challenges facing Iraq from Shi'ite militias and Sunni extremists, who often target not just Americans but also their own sects in vicious internal battles.

The United States has pointed to an anti-Al Qaeda alliance of local Sunni leaders as a sign of turnaround, but the attacks showed the high risks local leaders face by joining.

In one, militants bombed the northern Baghdad home of a moderate and highly regarded Sunni cleric, Sheik Wathiq al-Obeidi, who had recently spoken against Al Qaeda. He was seriously wounded and three relatives were killed.

A Sunni insurgent umbrella group had threatened Obeidi on Tuesday, calling him a traitor and accusing him of working with the US-backed alliance of Sunni tribal leaders, who are fighting Al Qaeda in western Iraq.

Followers denied that the cleric was linked to the alliance in Anbar Province, but he issued his own call against Al Qaeda recently during a funeral prayer for two nephews believed killed by extremists.

"We have to fight foreign fighters in our city," witnesses quoted him as saying. "We have to fight those linked to Al Qaeda."

In the second attack, a local tribal leader in Albu Khalifa, a village west of Baghdad, was gunned down by militants who broke into his home late yesterday, police said.

Sheik Fawaq Sadda' al-Khalifawi had recently joined the anti-Al Qaeda alliance in Anbar, said a police officer in the town of Karmah, 50 miles west of Baghdad. The police officer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of more reprisals.

The attacks occurred as Iraq's politics have remain stalled between the Shi'ite-led government and Sunnis suspicious that the government favors Shi'ite militias backed by Iran.

At least 33 people were killed or found dead nationwide, including a police officer and a woman who were struck by separate roadside bombs in northern Iraq.

Separately, the US military yesterday reported the death of a soldier in Tikrit that was noncombat-related.

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was in Iraq to meet with Justice Department officials helping to overhaul the country's legal system.

Gonzales also got an update from General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and planned to meet with Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, and other US and Iraqi officials. He had no public meetings.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, returning from a trip to Iran, said Tehran seeks more talks with the United States on stabilizing Iraq.

"I found a desire in Iran for much more dialogue with the Americans on fighting terrorism," the prime minister said.

Maliki reached out to other neighbors, too, saying his country wants to repair relations with Syria, Kuwait, and Iran that were "broken by the previous regime." But Maliki did not mention Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-led country furious with what it sees as the Shi'ite bias of Maliki's government.

In the south, the bomb that killed the governor and police chief struck in Qadisiyah Province as the two traveled back to the capital of Diwaniyah from a funeral.

The governor, Khalil Jalil Hamza, and the police chief, Major General Khalid Hassan, were killed along with their driver and a bodyguard. Hassan had been on the job one week, officials said.

Diwaniyah has been the site of heavy clashes between US-Iraqi security forces and Shi'ite militia fighters. The area also has seen a rise in internal rivalries between militia forces.

Authorities imposed an indefinite curfew after the deaths, and Maliki ordered an investigation and urged citizens to show restraint.

The governor was a member of the influential Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a group led by Shi'ite politician Abdul-Aziz al- Hakim. His loyalists dominate the police and have engaged in fierce fighting with the Shi'ite Mahdi Army for control of the oil- producing south.

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